How to Read Faces to Build Deeper Connections

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Captivate" by Vanessa Van Edwards. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is it possible to accurately read someone’s facial expressions? What can be learned? When should you try to do this?

In Captivate, Vanessa Van Edwards discusses Paul Ekman’s concept of universal facial expressions in the context of building deeper relationships. We’ll see how she recommends using the technique and what Ekman has to say about its abuse. We’ll also discuss a study that challenges the theory.

Keep reading for a discussion on how to read faces and what you can learn from doing so.

How to Read Faces

Van Edwards presents and discusses Paul Ekman’s theory of seven universal facial expressions and says that, when you know how to read faces, you can determine if people are being honest.

Facial microexpressions are tiny, near imperceptible facial gestures that appear and disappear in less than a second and communicate one of the following seven emotions. The features of the seven microexpressions are: 

  1. Anger: Brow furrowed, eyes and lips narrowed
  2. Contempt: Lips tightened and raised on one side of the face
  3. Happiness: A symmetrical smile displaying teeth, plumped cheeks, eye corners wrinkled
  4. Fear: Eyes wide, forehead and eyelids raised, mouth slightly open
  5. Surprise: Eyes wide, eyebrows raised and rounded, jaw hanging
  6. Disgust: Nose wrinkled, upper lip raised, cheeks and lower eyelid tight
  7. Sadness: Brow furrowed, eyelids drooping, lower lips pouting, mouth corners frowned

Van Edwards recommends that you look for microexpressions in the following situations: 

  • When someone’s talking, to see if their microexpression aligns with or contradicts the words coming out of their mouth 
  • When someone’s listening to you, to decipher how they truly feel about what you’re saying 

Van Edwards says that, once you know how to identify the emotion that a microexpression reveals, you should acknowledge it and adjust your behavior to address it. She recommends you do the following:

  • Recognize the emotion and try to identify where it’s coming from. For example, if a colleague tells you about a report deadline she has to meet and says, “I feel fine about it, everything’s on track,” but her microexpression reveals fear, try probing a little deeper to see if maybe things aren’t going as smoothly as she says.
  • Respond to the emotion by providing the person with information, support, or solutions where you’re able. Using the same example above, if you discover that your colleague is overwhelmed because she’s not going to meet her deadline, ask how you can help lighten her workload or alleviate her anxiety. These are offers you might not have otherwise made without paying attention to her microexpression and your generosity will enhance your relationship.
Abusing Universal Facial Expressions

Since co-discovering the seven universal facial expressions, Paul Ekman asserts that he’s become aware of concerns about their misuse and warns that bad actors can use microexpressions to manipulate and exploit people, most often by invading their privacy and taking information without permission. The “information” being taken is primarily how the speaker feels. For example, if someone tells you that they like your shared boss, but their facial expression shows contempt instead, your sharing of that information can be deemed a violation and theft of their private thoughts. Ekman acknowledges that in some cases this is helpful (like a doctor recognizing signs of abuse in her patient), but, in other cases, it’s dangerous (such as in legal scenarios). In fact, it was the Department of Defense that brought this to Ekman’s attention.

Let’s look at another caution regarding this theory.

Has the Concept of Universal Expressions Been Debunked?

One notable study determined that perceptions of emotion depend on cultural and conceptual contexts and aren’t universally consistent. In the study, participants from the US and Himba ethnic group were exposed to visual images and orally-translated stories to see if they identified the same emotions. When given the seven expressions to choose from, answers were fairly consistent among each group, but there were differences between the US participants and the Himba, which indicates a cultural distinction.

When the participants were not given a pool of answers to choose from, however, the consistency among the Himba dropped significantly. This indicates that there is a conceptual difference between the emotions as compared with the US participants, which challenges Ekman’s argument that humans innately demonstrate these expressions regardless of environment. You may also want to be wary of assuming that someone’s microexpression reveals the absolute truth of what they’re feeling, as some research challenges the notion of facial expression universality, finding that perceptions of emotion depend on cultural and conceptual contexts.
How to Read Faces to Build Deeper Connections

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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